In Minnesota, an innovative virtual approach to home energy inspections

The Home Energy Squad uses surveys, photos, and live video to help homeowners identify efficiency improvements.

Armed with her cell phone, Ellen Biales spent an hour last month sending a video of her home in St. Paul to an energy professional who asked questions and offered advice.

Biales was one of the first Minnesotans to receive a virtual visit from the Home Energy Squad from the Center for Energy and Environment. The service typically reached more than 700 customers per month before COVID-19 temporarily closed business.

Homeowners sign up online and fill out a pre-visit questionnaire to receive a free visit from two Home Energy Squad employees. It takes about an hour for Biales to learn a few things that could make her home more comfortable.

“It would have been nice to have a hands-on experience, but some aspects of the virtual visit were probably just as helpful,” she said.

The Home Energy Squad, sponsored by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, stopped offering live visits as of March 18. The Home Energy Squad is an integral part of the Center for Energy and Environment’s nonprofit business and employs around 45 people who employ up to 750 visits a month.

The improvements and upgrades that Home Energy Squad staff made while visiting thousands of customers resulted in a 6.3 gigawatt-hour saving and 29,390 decatherm savings in 2019, Olson said. The success of the program is also helping both utility sponsors meet the efficiency goals set through Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program.

The fact that the program can still evolve was welcome news for its sponsors. According to Xcel Energy, virtual visits are “a free and safe way to help customers discover zero, low-cost energy-saving opportunities and identify major future projects so that they can get started when the time is right.” adding that “the new offering is an example of how we innovate and adapt to respond to the current situation.”

The Center for Energy and Environment had taken up the concept of virtual visits before the pandemic but never got around to creating a process for them, said Rebecca Olson, director of residential programs. Over time, employees who worked at home worked together to develop a virtual home inspection approach that they believed could work and benefit customers while keeping the doors open for future face-to-face visits.

Data gathering remains an important part of the Home Energy Squad’s work as it advises clients and validates their utilities’ energy efficiency goals. The team concluded that some data is difficult to collect, such as: B. the insulation depth in attics and other measured variables.

Olson said it needed to encourage a shift in thinking from “perfect data and customer savings to improved customer engagement and retention.” In just two and a half weeks, her team of 45 came up with a method of conducting remote inspections that “reflected” real visits, with a few notable exceptions, she said.

“If we do that, there will be more conversations with the customer,” said Olson. “In other [in-house] During visits, we work quickly to carry out our data collection, tests and product installations and, in the end, to communicate with the customers. This virtual service is more of an advisory service as the customer alerts us to problems they are having, e.g. B. on cold or wet places. “

The process begins with customers completing a survey asking about their interest in energy efficiency and information about their homes. They upload photos of their stoves so that the Home Energy Squad can use the images to determine the approximate age and efficiency of the devices. Pictures of basements and other areas of the home arm staff with visual information that can lead them to provide knowledge and guidance to customers focused on potential efficiency improvements, she said.

Customers can use smartphones or other devices to broadcast videos for the virtual visit, although audio-only reviews worked well, she said. Two employees conduct inspections with customers and communicate via Google Hangouts or other platforms.

Employees instruct customers to record live video of problem areas, such as: B. where concrete basement walls meet floor joists and ventilation systems, she said. You might be asked to film places where weather strips could be added or shower heads could be replaced, Olson said.

Olson said the Center for Energy and Environment asked three dozen communities and organizations promoting the program to promote the remote inspections. By the end of April, the Home Energy Squad had made around 50 remote visits, some with customers who volunteered for staff practice.

Energy auditor Eric Larsen said the first two visits customers found the experience “informative and a good use of their time”. The nonprofit’s reports provide a prioritized list of improvements, estimated costs, and potential discounts, he said.

As the pandemic slows down, the new process gives customers time to research contractors and products before making decisions. The visits offer a less diagnostic and more advisory inspection, but cannot yet replace a real-time visit.

“A lot of what we do requires detailed observation,” said Larsen. “Even when we have a good picture of an attic, it is difficult to focus on different things that may be going on. If there is an exhaust fan we want to see how it is vented. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to completely replace the type of visit we do. “

Despite the lack of a physical exam, Biales heard advice she could act on to increase the comfort of her 1970 East Side St. Paul home and suggestions that might lead her to save up on potentially large energy-related purchases. She learned that her house was having ventilation issues and might need a new water heater.

“I think it was very informative and it gave me things to watch out for and things to watch out for,” she said. “They knew how houses work and how air flows through the rooms of my house. It was a great first step in making my home more energy efficient. “

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